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Monte Testaccio

This is the second of four excerpts from The Fall of Rome by Bryan Ward-Perkins.
The first excerpt, “The Disappearance of Comfort,” can be found here: LINK

“Monte Testaccio”


When considering quantities, we would ideally like to have some estimates for overall
production from particular potteries, and for overall consumption at specific settlements.
Unfortunately, it is in the nature of the archaeological evidence, which is almost
invariably only a sample of what once existed, that such figures will always be elusive.
However, no one who has ever worked in the field would question the abundance of
Roman pottery, particularly in the Mediterranean region. On Roman settlements (above
all urban sites), the labor that archaeologists have to put into the washing, sorting, and
storing of potsherds constitutes a high proportion of the total man-hours involved in the
initial process of excavation. At the moment of study and publication, the amount of
time (and pages) colonized by the pottery raises yet higher. Even the storage of such an
abundance can be a major headache. I well remember as a child, sometime around 1960,
helping to dump into a river (where they would not pollute the archaeological record)
boxes and boxes of Roman pottery recovered in field survey north of Rome, which had
simply outgrown the available storage space. Archaeologists collect, wash, mark, sort,
store, study, draw, and publish the thousands upon thousands of Roman potsherds
discovered in excavation and field survey, and thereby develop a healthy respect for the
impressive quantity (and quality) of pottery in circulation in ancient times. Sadly, it is
very difficult to translate this experience satisfactorily into words (let alone numbers) that
will convince all others.

Only rarely can we derive any ‘real’ quantities from deposits of broken pots. However,
there is one exceptional dump, which does represent a very large part of a site’s total
history of consumption, and for which an estimate of quantity has been produced. On the
left bank of the Tiber in Rome, by one of the river ports of the ancient city, is a
substantial hill some 50 metres high, Monte Testaccio – ‘Pottery Mountain’ is a
reasonable translation into English. It is made up entirely of broken oil amphorae, mainly
of the second and third centuries AD and primarily from the province of Baetica in south-
western Spain. It has been estimated that Monte Testaccio contains the remains of some
53 million amphorae, in which around six thousand million (6,000,000,000) litres of oil
were imported into the city from overseas. Imports into imperial Rome were supported
by the full might of the state and were therefore quite exceptional – but the size of
operations at Monte Testaccio, and the productivity and complexity that lay behind them,
none the less cannot fail to impress. This was a society with similarities to our own-
moving goods on a gigantic scale, manufacturing high-quality containers to do so, and
occasionally, as here, even discarding them on delivery. Like us, the Romans enjoy the
dubious distinction of creating a mountain of good-quality rubbish.

The next post in the series, “The End of Complexity,” is now up! LINK

Recent Comments

  1. max

    Hi, i wont signalr this site about Testaccio: http://www.testaccio.roma.it

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